In his devotion “On Loving God,” Bernard of Clairvaux writes of four “degrees” of love: (1) one loves oneself for one’s own sake, (2) one loves God for one’s own sake, (3) one loves God for God’s sake, (4) one loves oneself for God’s sake. What’s curious about this formulation is the order; why do the “degrees” move from loving oneself to loving God, then back to loving oneself?
I spend time discussing this in my Living Well class because it highlights two deficiencies I notice (both in myself and in students) about our relationship with ourselves, and in particular our bodies.
The first corresponds to that 1st degree: love of oneself for one’s own sake.
We value our bodies for selfish reasons. We’re motivated to exercise or eat a certain way because of how it will make us look, make us feel or make others think about or value us. This, of course, is a vain, selfish and ultimately destructive way of relating to ourselves (but still a mistake we all make).
The second deficiency is a deficiency in the 4th degree of love: love of oneself for God’s sake.
We fail to value ourselves as God values us. We fail to love ourselves as God loves us. And because we don’t have bodies, we are bodies, what this means is that we fail to value our bodies as God values them; we fail to love our bodies as God loves them.
Perhaps the reason that love of self is arranged as the 4th of the degrees of loving God is that, at least for Bernard, our love of God must include love of ourselves.
Just as John Calvin says that our knowledge of God is mutually connected with our (proper) knowledge of self, so too our love of God is mutually connected with our love of self. It is a properly ordered love of self — to be sure — but love of self nonetheless.
I would propose that a self-love properly ordered includes valuing ourselves, our whole selves, as God values us.
You are created (Genesis 1). You are wonderfully made (Psalm 139). You do not do good (Psalm 14). You are limited (Ecclesiastes 3). You are not your own (1 Corinthians 6). You shall be holy (Leviticus 20). You have the desire to do what is right; you do not do the good that you want to do (Romans 7). You are desired (Song of Songs 7).
So what’s the practical application? First, I would encourage us to affirm that “practical application” can and should include knowledge and motivations.
Scripture is overwhelmingly convincing on this point: God cares not just about what we do, but also about our thoughts and motivations. So working on reordering our motivations is itself a practical application.
Live a physically active life, but reorder your motivations for doing so. Eat well, but reorder your motivations for doing so. Embrace rest, but reorder your motivations for doing so.
Second, loving ourselves for God’s sake and valuing ourselves as God values us should not settle us into a position of static acceptance.
Becoming better at this 4th degree of love will bring with it a profound freedom, but like other forms of Biblical freedom, that freedom does not mean we stop doing things. It just means that we’re free from the burdens that come with doing them for the wrong reasons.
So value health, value rest, value physical movement, value a healthy relationship with food, but only in a way that expresses a love for yourself for God’s sake alone.